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In the K-pop industry, the relationship between artist and fan is an incredibly personal one. Unlike in the West, where the popularity of a musician can be largely swayed by digital factors — radio play, streaming numbers, album sales — in the South Korean pop music industry, interpersonal exchanges can have a massive, singular influence. It can be the factor that puts a group on the map, or leaves them completely under the radar. Live performances, called “stages,” are often how people are introduced to groups. The debut stage is an incredibly important event. Fansigns give you an opportunity to hold your favorite celebrity’s hand, and not just for a photo — they’ll read your diary, or sit and talk with you for a while.
But COVID-19 has upended all of these means of communication, along with the opportunity they provide for new K-pop groups to find visibility. So for the 11 members — 11! — of the Boyz, finding fame and making music amid the pandemic has involved nonstop work.
“It’s been pretty hectic with preparations for our comeback,” main dancer Juyeon told BuzzFeed News in a video call with the other members on Saturday, two days before the release of their sixth mini album, Thrill-ing. “Just a lot of practice and practice and practice.”
Debuting in 2017, the group rose to stardom last year by clinching the championship on popular South Korean competition show Road to Kingdom, where under-the-radar K-pop groups battle in live stages for a spot on the subsequent program Kingdom, with more experienced and well-recognized groups of singers and dancers. The Boyz edged out the competition with their theatrical and jaw-dropping stunts involving lighting their hands on fire, falling off high ledges, and aerial swordwork. They ultimately beat out many top teams to place second on Kingdom earlier in 2021. Since then, their fandom (called “Deobi”) has only expanded tenfold — virtually.
“Thankfully, we got around two days to rest up after the show before comeback,” said Juyeon to laughs from other group members. “Just two days.”
Although the work has been demanding, the Boyz are determined to ride their wave of growth amid the pandemic and continue to show their fans new sides to their music. It’s clear they miss their fans, and their estrangement from Deobi was a resurfacing theme throughout our conversation.
“No one knows when we’ll be able to see them face-to-face again,” said vocalist New. “That’s a really big worry.”
Their last track, “The Stealer,” was a reemphasis of what the Boyz are best known for — lots of strong choreography, heavy beats, and impressively seamless teamwork — but they hope that Thrill-ing, which was released on Monday, is a chance for them to show more of their sunny personalities as well. “This album has a more fresh and energetic vibe,” said dancer Hyunjae. “It wasn’t difficult for us to record it, since we’re always bright and laughing. We just had to be ourselves.”
“We want to prove to the fans that we have a new side of us,” said vocalist New. “There’s so much more to us — we have all kinds of different colors.”
There are a lot of different characters in the group. There are main vocalists Sangyeon, Younghoon, and New; lead dancers Hyunjae, Juyeon, and Q; rappers Sunwoo and Juhaknyeon; as well as vocalists Kevin, Jacob, and rapper Eric, who are the international members hailing from Vancouver, Toronto, and Los Angeles, respectively. During our interview, they kept up a stream of banter between more serious answers to motivate each other and helping each other translate different vocabulary words from Korean to English (a translator helped the South Korean–born members to answer as well). It’s been hard to connect face-to-face with everyone, they agreed, but they’re happy they have each other, as well as the mentality of hwaiting, or fighting.
Thrill-ing features six tracks of summer songs: light and upbeat tracks to dance away the heat. It’s been a while since they’ve done something as cute as the songs on this album, most notably the pool party–themed title track, “Thrill Ride.” It’s definitely a departure from their dark and dangerous reputation, but as Q said, “One thing that hasn’t changed for sure is that we put this all into this album, whether it is producing, singing, or recording.”
“We’re an 11-person team,” said Sunwoo, “so practice is the only answer.”
They filmed the music video for “Thrill Ride” for three days, something that Jacob and Eric said they’ve never done before for a music video (usually, they say, it takes two at max). But they had a lot of stories to share from the experience. “We had a big fan that was very powerful … to look like we were actually on a roller coaster,” Kevin said. “I was supposed to be holding a peanut butter and jelly, and Eric was supposed to take it from me and throw it off the cart.”
Eric mimed a violent tossing motion as Kevin continued: “But the fan flew it out of my hand and directly onto his face, and it sounded like someone slapped his face!”
While the pandemic has cut them off from fans, they’re not cut off from each other. As they quarantined together, they’ve found ways to pass the time — albeit unusual ones. Q, who has a fondness for horror movies, loves to give his Chucky doll hairstyling makeovers and even found him a partner: an equally scary doll named Annabelle (named for the 2014 horror film he loves) that he leaves with Chucky in places to spook his fellow band members. Kevin says he’s cool with it, but Juyeon is vehemently not. “We’re used to it, but at nighttime we’ll go to the kitchen to get something, and we’ll turn the lights on,” explained Jacob. “It scares us!”
One recent surprise reminder of their fandom, though, came during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics when South Korean weightlifter Ham Eun-Ji revealed that she was a Deobi herself, giving the Boyz a shoutout. “That was a huge thrill in it of itself,” said Kevin.
They cherish these moments when they get to see their fans doing great things as they continuously remember times when they could see Deobi in person. But for now, the idea of performing on stage is just a memory — albeit a vivid one. “It’s exciting — you get a lot of butterflies in your stomach,” Younghoon said.
Now, there’s less anticipation. “There’s no audience who will cheer for us and we miss them so much,” Eric said. “If you were to compare it in terms of emotions, it’s just boring to be on stage without your fans.”
In the meantime, the Boyz hope Thrill-ing can be their way to communicate with new fans, old fans, and the boys themselves. In this time where so much is happening for the group and the horizons for in-person meetings still feel out of reach, making music without pressure and just trying to communicate with their fans has helped make things somewhat enjoyable. “That in itself is a huge accomplishment,” Kevin said.